In the boom, an onslaught of underage oilfield workers hit the bars in Watford City, and every day was suddenly like Homefest, an event where a party-like atmosphere pervades, and there is typically a lot of drinking.
“It was wall-to-wall activity,” Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said. “We didn’t know everyone any more.”
Sanford was one of several speakers during A Day for Prevention, talking about the problems of drug and alcohol addiction, and statewide efforts to boost prevention efforts. The conference was led by Gov. Doug Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum.
Burgum said 77 people have died in North Dakota from overdoses in 2016, and that millions of dollars have been spent pursuing a fruitless and expensive path of punishment.
“We need to start taking a different approach to it,” he said. “The science we have now makes us understand that this is the same thing as punishing people with cancer or locking someone up when we find out they have diabetes. Addiction is a disease.”
Incarceration costs $41,000 per person annually, Burgum said, and doesn’t actually include any rehabilitation for the person's addiction. Nor does it include the cost of constructing the facilities to house them.
“We spent $260 million over a decade building jails, and that’s just the building cost,” Burgum said. “That’s not tough on crime. It’s tough on tax payers. It’s tough on communities and on families.”
Addictions, Burgum added, are fatal if not treated. Putting a price on the loss of that human capital is impossible.
“If we think we can treat (addiction) in 28 days … again, that’s like saying you’ve got diabetes, well here’s 28 days of insulin, good luck,” Burgum said. “We are treating (addiction) with an acute solution. That is the way insurance companies and many people think about it. We have to figure out a way to think differently about it.”
While many people think of the opioid crisis when they talk about such issues, that’s not the most prevalent addiction in the state, First Lady Kathryn Burgum said.
“It’s grabbing headlines,” she said, showing a slide that compared the amount of opioid deaths to alcohol deaths in Cass County. The latter far exceeded the former.
“We need to realize we still have huge issues with alcohol as a chronic disease as well,” she said.
That problem often starts when people are young, in college, away from home the first time, or even younger than that.
What many of those young drinkers don’t realize, however, is that their brain is still maturing, developing the capacity to think and plan ahead. Most of that development occurs from the ages of 18 to 25 — and even infrequent use of alcohol can affect that development with cellular changes, at the level of DNA.
It was, in fact, underage drinking that Sanford found himself faced with curbing as then-mayor of Watford City.
For the small community that Watford City was at the time the boom began, the community-wide effort involved a coalition of people with various resources to tackle the problem, rather than any one agency going it alone. By working closely together, they were able to magnify their impact.
“Maybe Tom would laugh about this,” Sanford said. “But we started listening to Tom Volk from Human Services.”
Volk, Sanford recalled, was ready with lots of plans and ideas for the McKenzie County Community Coalition’s fledgling efforts to manage the explosion in underage drinking in their small community. It was those successful practices that Sanford talked about during the Day for Prevention, which was live-streamed at various locations, including Williston.
Chelsea Ridge, among those in the Williston audience, was nodding her head as Sanford talked about Watford City’s efforts. That’s because, as community health coordinator with the Upper Missouri Health District and a member of the fledgling Williams County Community Coalition, she has been involved in efforts to implement some of the successful tactics Watford City used to prevent underage drinking in their community.
These include updated responsible server training, compliance checks at area businesses, ID card scanners to spot fakes, and perhaps new ordinances to hone in on loud parties and/or social hosts, which refers to those hosting an underage drinking party.
“A lot of the stuff he mentioned is what we are trying to implement now,” Ridge said.
The Williams County Community Coalition conducted its first compliance check in February, and found that 35 percent of area businesses sold alcohol to a minor. Individuals chosen to do the compliance checks look well under 21, in addition to actually being underage, so that the test is just a check of compliance, rather than a trick, it was explained during the conference.
In Watford City, the compliance checks at first resulted in warnings, but later on, there were fines, and then, if fines weren’t enough, there were suspensions of licenses for a few days.
The suspensions, Sanford said, really got the attention of businesses that were violating laws against selling to minors. That helped fill up server training classes fast.
“You never stop,” Sanford added. “There’s a new crop of teenagers and servers coming in all the time, so it is something you have to keep in front of.”
Watford City has also worked on getting card readers for places serving alcohol, to make it easier to spot out-of-state fakes. Three of those are being tested in Williams County, Ridge said.
“Like Brent said, with the oil boom, we have people from all over the place,” Ridge said. “So how do we train (servers and bartenders) on how to read the identification and spot fakes, even from Texas and New York? The card readers really help with that.”
The Williams County Coalition will also be bringing in trainers in April or May to help the police department update its responsible server training for bartenders and waitresses.
“We just started in Williams County, and we do have a good partnership with the police department,” Ridge said.
Ridge said she was grateful for the chance to attend an event like A Day for Prevention in Williston.
“This has been great to learn more about what is going on across the state and in individual communities,” she said.
She also felt she learned a lot about engaging the community, and the steps that need to be taken in her role as a member of the Williams County Community Coalition.
“You just want to jump full force, two feet in first, but you cannot do that,” she said. “You have to do the steps and make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.”